My Vassar email is my missed connection. It is not unlike other Vassar emails— assigned to me by jamming the first two letters of my first name into my last name and adding “@vassar.edu”. But my Vassar email is special because I am not its first owner.
A few months into my freshman year, I opened my spam inbox and saw a floodgate of spam emails addressed to someone named “Kimarlee.” I remember chuckling. Either my phone was spying on me to sell my data and grossly misinterpreted my name to ad companies now soliciting me, or a store associate misheard me when I agreed to receive their marketing emails. I was used to having my last name butchered, but I never thought my first name would give anyone trouble.
But a small voice in the back of my head told me it might be more than that—that I should look further into it, just in case. Just in case there was a Kimarlee Nguyen out there that this special offer was really trying to reach. So I opened a new browser window and typed in “Kimarlee Nguyen.”
I had been on the fence about my English major I knew for weeks. (I promise this aside is relevant). I wanted so badly to become a career poet. English 101 was my favorite class, and I knew that I would love every moment of studying to become a writer. But I had questions. Could I make money? Would my parents be happy with my choice? I was, I thought, an insignificant daughter of refugees who grew up in a corner of the midwestern. Would the world even care what I had to say?
All the search results for “Kimarlee Nguyen” were links to literary magazines and journals. I combed through each one. It turned out that Kimarlee Nguyen was a real, separate person. We also shared so much more than just a similar-sounding name. She, like me, came from a refugee background. She did indeed attend Vassar College, and she graduated in 2008. Like me, she was a writer. I felt as if a door had been opened for me, that fate had brought us together in the most beautiful way. Kimarlee’s existence answered so many of the questions I had spent hours doubting myself over. I declared my English major two weeks later. And now, four years later, I have poems forthcoming in two different journals so far this year. My connection to Kimarlee feels full circle.
Kimarlee was a silent guiding force throughout my writing career. She was the version of myself I wanted to become. There were always moments I doubted myself. I doubted my voice and the power of the stories I had to tell. Writing about trauma was not easy, but always something I knew I wanted to do. When these doubts overwhelmed me, when I really didn’t believe in my ability to tell a compelling story or peoples’ willingness to listen to what I had to say, I would type Kimarlee’s name into Google and read her again and again. Kimarlee’s writing saved me. She soothed me through bad workshops and bad writing advice. I asked myself each time: If she could do it, why not I?
After years of silently idolizing Kimarlee, I finally found an opportunity to meet her. Kimarlee was supposed to be on a panel of Cambodian-American writers later this month. I planned to attend this event, to connect with the writer who I was unusually close to and tell her about our email connection and all the parts of our story we shared. The event was canceled due to COVID-19, but I didn’t worry. I figured it would be rescheduled, that I would get another chance to meet Kimarlee at a safer time. But I have just learned that Kimarlee has passed away due to COVID-19. I will never get to meet my soul twin.
I don’t know how to grieve a person I only knew through a shared inbox. In my family, we always talk about those who go first. As the oldest immigrant daughter, I have always been the one who is supposed to go first, the one who endures difficulties to pave paths for my younger siblings. It is a duty I was born to fulfill, and that always left me wondering: who is there to go first for me? I will always view receiving Kimarlee’s old Vassar email as a gift to me from my ancestors, that she, for me, is the one who went first. Whenever I felt lost, Kimarlee was like a star I could align myself to.
I think often about the odds. What are the odds that I was assigned a duplicate email? What are the odds it happened to be someone whose name almost sounds like mine? What are the odds that she and I had a similar background, that we would both become writers? What are the odds that a spam bot kept firing to a deactivated email address that always bounced back? Until one day it didn’t? What are the odds of this connection? I often think: I am a product of these small odds. Moments like this remind me of how beautiful this world is, that it can bring together people under the most unlikely of circumstances.
I know that I will not grieve Kimarlee in the same way that the people who truly know her and love her will grieve her, but this is my love letter to Kimarlee. Thank you for existing. Thank you for writing. Thank you for making me feel so seen in your existence and writing. You will be so missed, by everyone who knew and loved you, but also by everyone who ever had the chance to read you. I am so honored we shared the same earth, the same college campus, the same last name, the same inbox.
Classmates and others who knew Kimarlee are encouraged to share their best memories and photos of Kimarlee here: https://padlet.com/charmchua/rememberingkim